Central U.S. Beef Producers Keeping an Eye Out for Potential Anthrax Infection


American beef producers located in the central U.S. have a lot of challenges to deal with, but Anthrax might not be the first challenge that comes to mind. Dr. Russ Dailey is an extension veterinarian with South Dakota State University. While bio-terrorism is the first thing some may think of when it comes to Anthrax, Dailey says it’s something beef producers deal with regularly.

“it’s a disease that we hear about on the news as far as being a terrorism threat and some pretty nasty things that it can do to people. A lot of us remember the powder in the envelopes back in the early 2000s when they were sent all over and killed some people. But Anthrax is something that we deal with in cattle pretty much every year in this part of the country.”

The bacteria are found in the soil and form a spore when exposed to the air. Those spores are resistant to high temperatures and freezing conditions and can live in soil for a long time. Specific environmental conditions can make those spores more accessible to cattle.

“One of them is drought conditions: when animals are grazing the pastures closer to the ground so they can eat more of the soil or maybe even inhale some dust while they’re grazing. That’s the one thing. We’ve also come to realize is that in instances where pastures have been flooded or have some temporary standing water out on pastures, that kind of disrupts or roils up the spores from the soil. And then, when that water dries back up, those spores are still washed up on the grass and more available for cattle to eat them too. So, it’s not just drought, it’s not just flooding, but it can be those different situations that make cattle more likely to pick them up.”

Anthrax in cattle can be hard to spot because it works quickly. “There is not any real set of signs in cattle that persist for very long periods, because once the disease starts in cattle, it progresses so rapidly that we very rarely see sick cattle from it. We just find them dead. So, when the bacteria get into the body of the cow or the bull, it has this chance to replicate and regenerate from the spore form into the reproductive form in the bacteria, and then it produces a toxin that just goes all over the body and rapidly damages multiple organ systems, and so we rarely will see any like animals. We’ll just find them that out on pasture.”

He says any unexplained death loss means it’s important to have a veterinarian determine the cause. There is one visible sign producers might see in otherwise healthy cattle who suddenly die in the pasture.

“One thing that people notice on these carcasses when they’re laying out there in the pasture is the presence of unclouded blood coming from the nose or coming from the rectum of the animal. That can be a tip-off that Anthrax is there. For some reason, that same anthrax toxin that kills the animal also interferes with blood clotting after death, So that can be a clue.”

While the Dakotas are more prone to Anthrax, he says producers in states stretching from North Dakota down through Texas need to remain vigilant about Anthrax in their herds. If you find Anthrax in dead cattle, producers need to protect themselves and then talk to their vets about proper disposal methods.